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Missed connections in our digital lives

As screens and gadgets increasingly claim our eyes and time, shared family experience is feeling the squeeze

Billerica’s Nicki Laffey, 16, and her brother, Chris, 18, click and type away amid no shortage of screens. Billerica’s Nicki Laffey, 16, and her brother, Chris, 18, click and type away amid no shortage of screens. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / April 15, 2012
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First in a series of occasional articles on life in a screen-saturated society

BILLERICA - At 5 o’clock on a weekday morning, the alarm sounds on Nicki Laffey’s cellphone, cradled beside her pillow. Before getting ready for school, the 16-year-old checks for any text messages that came in while she was asleep.

An hour later, her father, Kevin, turns on his bedroom television and exercises for 30 minutes. Her mother, Shelly, goes downstairs and makes breakfast while watching the news on her kitchen TV. The last in the family to rise is Nicki’s 18-year-old brother, Chris, who sends and receives half a dozen texts before heading off to school.

Before day and night are done, the Laffeys will have collectively logged nearly 50 hours of screen time, divided among cellphones (each owns one), computers (ditto), and television sets (the house has seven). Not so easily quantifiable, though, is the toll all this screen time takes on family life, as sit-down meals have become hit-and-miss affairs and even a weekend dinner out can raise the issue of who’s watching what, and why.

Nicki alone will have sent more than 250 texts between wake-up and bedtime. Kevin will have spent the bulk of his workday in front of a computer, and much of his after-work time watching televised sports. Shelly will have used the household desktop computer to manage her home daycare business, a dashboard-mounted GPS device to plot her driving routes, and a steady stream of TV shows to keep herself company (“I like the noise’’) while doing chores. Chris, meanwhile, will have transitioned from one screen to the next - from cellphone to laptop to interactive “smartboards’’ in his school classrooms - during the course of his hectic day.

Like most Americans, the Laffeys live in a screen-saturated society, one dominated, if not defined, by the myriad electronic devices that manage, digest, and transmit the information that governs peoples’ busy, albeit often distracted, lives. Like many, too, they’re constantly weighing their own financial constraints against the desire to own the latest, gaudiest gadgets on the market.

It’s been 60 years since television became the primary medium for popular entertainment and three decades since the personal computer revolution was launched. E-book readers and smartphones have furthered that revolution, joined more recently by tablet computers like the Apple iPad, the newest version of which rolled out last month.

With each new phase of innovation, screen use has expanded to unprecedented heights. One consequence is that families are spending less time interacting face to face. According to a 2010 study by the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future, over the last decade the amount of time family members in Internet-connected households spend in shared interaction dropped from an average of 26 hours a week to less than 18 hours. Meanwhile, complaints of being ignored at times by family members using the Internet soared.

The average American now spends more than eight hours in front of a screen each day, sometimes two or more screens at once, perched side by side. That figure does not take into account the more public locations where screens now vie for eyeballs and attention: in restaurants and taxi cabs, elevators and gas stations.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 88 percent of American adults now own a cellphone, and nearly half of those devices being smartphones; overall, 46 percent carry smartphones of some kind. In addition, 57 percent own a laptop computer, 55 percent a desktop model, 44 percent a game console, 19 percent an e-book reader, and 19 percent a tablet computer. Among young people aged 12 to 17, nearly 80 percent own a cellphone, and 30 percent have a smartphone.

As these devices become more powerful and more portable, and Internet connectivity more widespread, screen life is fast becoming a way of life for more and more American families like the Laffeys.

The most striking trend has been the growing number of platforms people use to access media or communicate, says Vicky Rideout, a San Francisco consultant who directed the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program for the Study of Media and Health.

“As we go mobile, we’ve seen this big increase in media consumption,’’ she says. “All this mobility has opened up many more hours of the day to consume media. Meanwhile, the age at which kids are using media is going down, down, down.’’

A 2011 survey conducted by Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit focused on technology use by children, found that 53 percent of Americans 8 years old or younger now use mobile devices for media consumption. On average, the survey found, computer use starts around age 3 1/2; for some, it’s even younger.

Rideout, among other specialists, is concerned about the impact screen use is having on family life. The key issue, she says, is the amount of attention individuals pay to one another. That includes parents lost in their own screen worlds, too, not just text-happy tweens and teens. “Not everyone has an iPad,’’ Rideout notes. “But when every member has his own TV set, that may do something to time spent together.’’ Media technologies themselves may be neutral, she adds, but they enable behavior that can be troublesome. “You can use it to save time or to waste time,’’ Rideout says. “To learn about something or be distracted.’’

Nicholas Carr, author of the bestseller “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains,’’ sees a growing tension between a desire to stay connected technologically, for work or social reasons, and feeling pressured to do so.

“Until recently, time spent looking at screens shot up when people reached their 20s and went to work,’’ says Carr, who writes frequently about media and technology. As younger people start adopting the same screen habits 20-somethings once did, he adds, “our social and work norms are changing to incorporate that reality.’’

The expectation of staying connected - of constantly monitoring work messages, social media sites, or texts - is growing as fast as the screen devices proliferate. “A lot of these trends were already there four years ago,’’ Carr says. “However, the intensity of use of these gadgets, and concerns about that, have gone up significantly.’’

Put the phone down, please

For the Laffeys, living with screens - TVs, computers, cellphones - is both a blessing and an arms race, they say. How much is enough? When does “I want’’ become “I need’’? And when does not having the latest gadget become a handicap more than an act of fiscal prudence and self-restraint?

Whilethey enjoy the advantages all this technology brings to their lives, they have been feeling the pressure to acquire more and more of it nonetheless.

“I look at my kids, and the tools and resources available to them are incredible,’’ says Kevin, 53, a marketing director at Massport. The negative side? Seeing his teenage daughter bury herself in phone texting rather than engage in face-to-face conversation. He now insists that Nicki put away the phone while riding in the car and talk to him. On school nights, the Laffeys monitor Nicki’s TV time but choose not to impose strict limitations on it, as long as her homework gets done.

Because texting has become such an easy, and at times addictive, form of communication among teenagers, says Kevin, “children may not be as conversant as they should be. And to me that’s one obvious drawback.’’ At home, he adds, “more and more, I notice we’re in separate rooms watching separate programs, or on our own computers. That’s very common around here - and also sad, I must admit.’’

Nicki and Chris laugh about a recent evening when she was in her upstairs bedroom and he was in his downstairs study, doing homework on his computer (with the TV on). He was on Skype and noticed that Nicki was also logged on. Despite being under the same roof, separated by 30 feet, the two video-chatted on Skype for several minutes.

That singular moment captured the yin and yang of living with screens: fun and convenience on the one hand, disconnection on the other.

“Are there drawbacks? Definitely,’’ says Chris, a senior at Arlington Catholic High School. If peers engage in serious conversations via text messaging, rather than face to face, “that takes away from their social skills,’’ he says. “But I’ve grown up with it, so it seems pretty commonplace.’’

He would like to get an iMac computer he says, because they’re faster and easier to use than his three-year-old PC. Nicki, a Billerica High sophomore, also covets a Mac but yearns for a smartphone even more, one that could connect her to the Web at the touch of a button.

“All my friends have one,’’ she says, a lament being heard in many households these days. What are her friends doing that she cannot? “Checking Facebook all the time,’’ she replies. “They’re on it all night.’’

In January, without benefit of a smartphone, Nicki sent 8,174 text messages.

Gathered ’round the screen

The Laffeys’ house, a two-story raised Cape, sits on a quiet residential street in Billerica, northwest of Boston. It is where Kevin and Shelly have raised their two kids in a warm and close family environment. Church activities and sports are important pieces of that fabric.

On most weeknights, though, communal meals have become more wish than reality. When not traveling for business, Kevin often stays in Boston for a work-related meeting or social function; if he arrives home later than the others, he will often eat in the family room while watching a game. Chris holds an after-school job as a YMCA swim instructor, then brings home an hour or two of schoolwork. Nicki usually has cheerleading practice or a lacrosse game. Should she still have homework to finish later, she’ll do it with her computer - phone and TV all within easy reach. “We do the best we can do,’’ Shelly says. “A Sunday dinner, at least. Hopefully.’’

When the four do make it home together, they like to gather in the upstairs family room, centered around a 60-inch flatscreen TV. Sometimes they’ll watch a show together - “American Idol,’’ perhaps - but as the kids have grown up, and grown accustomed to, having their own devices, those occasions have grown rarer.

Chris and Nicki got their first cellphones in sixth grade, normal for their peer group according to a national survey conducted for, which calculates the average age of first-time cellphone ownership at 11.6 years. One year later, each was allowed to create his or her own Facebook page. By high school, each owned a laptop as well.

By some standards, that’s a lot of technology at each one’s disposal. By other measures, though, it lags behind what other families have equipped themselves with - and in many cases now feel dependent upon.

Her kids “always want the best, and we kind of frown on that,’’ says Shelly, who works part-time as a preschool teacher in addition to running her state-licensed home daycare business. “Yes, we could probably afford to get them everything they want, but that’s not what we’re trying to teach them here. It’s, ‘I want, I want, I want.’ They want to keep up with the Joneses.’’

Kevin is less concerned with keeping up than with falling so far behind technologically - he admits he’s always been slow to embrace the latest screen devices, mobile or otherwise - that it hampers him professionally. He plans to get a smartphone soon, like most of his work colleagues. Without one, he’s forced to take his laptop even on short trips. “I need an upgrade here,’’ he says. “And Shelly could probably use a tablet to help manage her business.’’

Meanwhile, the cost of supporting what they already have keeps mounting. The Laffeys now spend $225 per month on cable and Internet service and another $150 on their family cellphone plan.

In the end, just no escape

Chris, an honors student bound for Boston University next fall, has changed his habits significantly during his high school years, he says. No longer does he spend hours a week playing online video games or surfing YouTube for amusing videos. The Nintendo and GameCube and Wii game players he owns seldom get much use these days. For Christmas, he asked for a Nook e-book reader, but that too has gone largely unused. Even keeping up with his Facebook (1,314 friends) and Twitter accounts has been difficult.

“A lot of what I do [online] isn’t so social; it has more of a purpose,’’ Chris says. As for his peer group desiring the best and latest devices, he says, “people don’t necessarily compete with each other. But they do jump on whatever’s new when it comes out, like the iPhone 4. Everyone has to have it.’’

Nicki is more openly envious of friends who have smartphones and mostly uses her laptop to connect with others via Facebook. She does not have a Twitter account and Skypes infrequently, since her friends don’t do much of that. E-mail is virtually obsolete in her cyber-world. “I probably have 5,000 unread messages on my account,’’ she says.

Three years after joining Facebook (about 1,300 friends), she is less obsessive about posting status updates - and more discreet with sharing personal information online. If someone she doesn’t know personally “friends’’ her on Facebook, she’s apt to delete him or her. That would not have happened a year or two ago.

Getting away from screens can be difficult, Kevin and Shelly admit. Even going out to dinner together on weekends has prompted serious discussions about how and where to draw the limit on screen time. Because Kevin loves sports and cannot bear to miss a game, he prefers a restaurant offering at least one large-screen TV. By agreement, he’ll sit where he can follow the action but not to the exclusion of paying attention to his wife too.

“I’ve said, ‘Can’t you give me one day a month?’ ’’ Shelly says with a laugh. “But he cannot do it. It would eat him up inside.’’

Has she make peace with that? “I’m still working on it.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at

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